A website devoted to teaching/playing/writing for/ the King of Instruments
Jan. 7, 2018
This posting addresses an extremely important matter ... When someone performs Bach on an organ today, other organists sometimes comment afterwards to the effect that, "You need to reevaluate your approach ... you must only do such and such ... you are only allowed to do this or that ... you must play it as BACH would have played it." So then, if we must play Bach strictly "as HE would have played it," does that mean attired in 18th century German costume complete with buckled shoes and a French full-bottom wig on our head as HE would have played it ? ... does that mean we need to first cut through the power line to the instrument's blower, install a tread bellows, and arrange for a couple of teenage boys to pump it as HE would have played it ? ... does that mean never changing manuals, never changing stops, and playing everything broken -- EVERY single voice broken, even the bass -- in the way we think HE would have played it ? ... If that's the case, then we might as well have organs with only one manual ... we might as well not have any stops, as they would always be on -- all the time. If we're to play the music of other composers such as Vierne "as VIerne would have played it," does that mean that we need play it in light so dim we can barely see the keys ? ... The answer to all of these questions is obvious. Are we to conclude that J.S. Bach the organist -- who drew the stops in his own manner, who taught his scholars that everything was possible and would never hear of anything being not feasible -- if he were alive today would NOT be making use of ALL the modern organ has to offer and restrict himself only to what 17th and 18th century German organs could do ? ... It's a fair question. This brings to mind a very important point that Bach himself would be among the first to promote: we can choose to accept a practice and follow it for a time with exaggerated zeal or choose to ignore it ... we can yield ourselves to the latest fad or remain as we are and wait for the next fad to come along, which may be worse ... we can also rationalize our way of doing things and be semi-critical of everyone else who does it a different way ... but the inscrutable fact remains: Music is meant to be interpreted. Leaning on discoveries made in the 1970's about early organ technique, some of the really puristic Organ departments of colleges are teaching a rigorous employment of non-legato (articulate legato, "ordinary touch") and its associated techniques (early fingering, thumbs off sharps, toes-only pedaling, abandonment of glissando and substitution) in all the parts when performing ALL early (pre-1800) organ music including the music of Bach ... with legato and its associated techniques (substitution, thumb glissando, liberal use of heels in pedalling) retained for all other music unless otherwise specified by the composer [See blog, Touch, Parts I, III]. The premise here is that a work is indeed to be interpreted but in the same way its creator would have interpreted it on the period instrument known to him/her ... a premise widely accepted. We find with J.S. Bach's music even more of a separation, and so it's probably safer not to call his music "early" especially when trying to settle on fingering. We cannot apply early fingering technique to every measure of his organ music because of its complexity; he uses many more accidentals in his music than was typical for his time, and, the more accidentals the music has, the more we have to use things like thumb under or thumbs on sharps. His music is of thicker texture than the general run of early music, and thumbs under and on sharps cannot be avoided when the texture of the music is so thick. There are many exceptions in Bach-playing for using finger substitution and finger/thumb glissando because the hand layout for each person is different and fingering gets very individual. "One-size-fits-all" early fingering doesn't always work for everyone; the span of the palm is different for each performer; some can barely stretch an octave's distance, in which case it's even more important to work out the hand division for the middle voices in advance of our practice. Feet also come in different sizes and shapes, and toes-only pedalling may be very hard to employ compared with heel-toe when playing highly contrapuntal music; this can translate for some into wasted energy and precious practice time, not to mention discouragement. With non-legato the organist is trying to get off the keys by inserting minute but definitely audible breaks between all the notes including the bass line which, if these breaks could be counted, would amount to approximately 1/8 the written value of the notes. In actual practice some performers, in their desire to distance themselves as much as possible from the legato school in the performance of Bach, exaggerate this broken articulation even more -- the audible breaks they insert between the moving notes are stretched to more like 1/4 the written value, which morphs the touch into marcato. Bach organ fugues have even been recorded where every note from start to finish, including the pedal, is rendered staccato at half written value, sometimes even less than half, as fast as the organist can play it -- accelerating during the opening into a torrent of notes that makes us wonder if we're listening to a rapid fire French Romantic toccata instead of a multi-voice fugue. This pathetic situation complete with energetic head-bobbing and smug ornamenting added to impress the senses, if and when it occurs, carries the modern development of constantly playing Bach's moving lines broken to the worst possible extreme; the clarity of the moving lines upon which the entire effect of Bach's music depends is made so choppy the listener's ear is unable to follow any of it [See blog, Bach d minor, Part III]. There are world class organists who claim that this is some kind of fad -- and that the next fad may be worse -- but a perpetual, relentless legato is not accepted (or even possible) in any other instrument, and to play each and every note of Bach legato throughout and to deprive it of phrasing is to destroy it of life. NOTE: Just when we believe the war axe was buried, some haters believe it's helpful to revive the barren debate on Bach's editions by Marcel Dupre; Dupre annotated most of Bach's organ works during the years of preparing his mammoth series of all Bach's organ works in 10 concerts between January 23 and March 26, 1920 in the organ room of the Paris Conservatory; he later had the idea of publishing his work in 1926-27 with the aim of producing a "practical" edition for his students; having drawn from the resources of the Bachgesellschaft, a revision work that Breitkopf editions will review a few decades later, it's important to note that the accuracy of Dupre's text is impeccable, unlike Peters editions; Dupre added fingering and pedalling as a help and a proposal, but students remain free to arrange Dupre's text to suit themselves according to their own morphology; in the darkest written lines of haters however the indications he offers are not good and never will be. As for the Dupre-edition-haters, can they guarantee that they're sure-footed enough to play all the great preludes and fugues of Bach in a runaway with no mistakes ? ... nothing is less sure. Also, if the work of a technical exercise ends with tendonitis or other muscle suffering, all musicians and dancers will say that it was done wrong and in bad positions, and that what was achieved was the opposite of what one wanted; has any known case of this ever resulted from the repetitive use of Dupre's Bach edition, his Franck edition, or his Methode d''Orgue for that matter ? ... the answer is NO. By trashing Dupre's edition we succeed in trashing Bach's work, Dupre's students the majority of whom have contributed to the radiation of the 20th century organ school in France, and the students of the latter who represent a large proportion of our current organists. Trying to turn our ignorance into intelligence would be stupidity -- foolishness would be believing that such intelligence works. Can a piece of organ music be destroyed by excessive speed? ... yes indeed; it can be ruined merely by drawing an unsuitable registration (choice of stops). It's conceivable though, that in the course of our studies we may run across the score of an organ fugue written pretty much in 18th century common practice style by a mostly unknown contemporary composer where the music is very busy, the texture is thick like that of Bach's, there are no indications for touch, and all the performer knows is that the music is not early (this author's music contains many examples of this). In this situation the question arises as to choosing a starting place for the touch ... i.e., whether to let the modern date of composition dictate the employment of legato in all the parts -- OR to give the style of the piece primary consideration and play every voice broken from the beginning. Which ? ... legato or broken ? -- those taking a firm stand on the side of broken seem hesitant to answer that question because the rule they've been taught doesn't seem to work either way. This should tell us something. This can have us, at times, feeling like we're in a rope pull (photo) in which we're faced with deciding which "school" (legato or broken) we're going to have to assign to wear the roller skates and give ground to the other side [See blog, Style vs. Date Of Creation]. Before we make up our minds as to which end of the rope to favor (or to favor either end at all) we need to make sure our feet will be planted on firm ground in this debate by having fallen back on what we already know that's very solid. We know, for example, that no rule in organ playing is ever "absolute" and that there is no such word in the glossary of organ playing. We also know that the entire effect of a fugue (or any other highly polyphonic piece of organ music, for that matter) stands or falls on the clarity of its moving lines. We also know that the more we connect the left hand line in such music the less the right hand line is evident, the more it's compromised; thus we have to sometimes break the left hand line by detaching so the right hand can be heard more clearly. This too, should tell us something. We also know in the performing of repertoire that sometimes we have to "change the manuscript mentally" to get clear what's on the page [See blog, Listening For The Listener]; sometimes there are so many held notes that the other moving parts aren't really audible -- they are just vaguely moving; we may have to pick things up in unusual places, not hold them quite as long, and this is true in so much organ music, not just Bach (in Reger, for example, we have to change hundreds of things in the way he wrote it, but we do it because our ear tells us that we can't hear clearly everything that's on the page, and it's wonderful writing). In the Bach fugue we're not changing a lot of things, just not connecting everything. We also know that a strict legato touch throughout was taught to organists in the performance of Bach and held sway for about a century and a half without serious complaint from academia; many world renown 19th and even 20th century concert organists in fact built their performing reputations this way, and some are still doing that. This also should tell us something. And, we also know that stylistic fugues reminiscent of the Bach school are still being written in the modern era, pieces that are instructive, useful, and worthwhile for an organist to learn and perform; undoubtedly, due to the inevitable progress of the art, some of the best of these fugues are probably still waiting to be written. And so, in terms of taking sides for a starting touch, the short answer for how to perform a modern fugue is that it's style is more important than a rule concerning its date of composition [See blog, Contemporary Practice]. Another question which arises is whether imperceiveably broken (clean legato) touch, which is middle of the road between legato and non-legato, a touch where the organist isn't trying to get off the keys, is good to employ with modern fugues. The answer is yes, of course; a good argument may be made for using this midway "almost legato" touch for the fastest running notes in any organ music. This tells us something, again. Do we really have to declare ourselves for one side or the other in this rope pull then, when it comes to playing polyphonic music, early or modern? ... it depends upon our training and what we think is right, of course, but, it's important to remember to be broad-minded these days in exposing ourselves to many influences in our performing, composing, or improvising. Bottom line: From the standpoint of clarity, to bring out all the best the music has to offer, what kind of touch(es) do we think to employ for performing a Bach fugue? Answer: ALL of them. What kind of touch(es) do we think to employ then for performing a modern fugue? Same answer. ALL of them. In a major Bach work we think to play some notes legato, many of them imperceiveably broken, some non-legato, some marcato, and some staccato -- 5 different things depending upon the duration of the notes, their rhythmic pattern, the phrasing desired, whether a note repeats, the way the instrument breathes in its own acoustical environment, and the tempo [See blog, Touch, Part I, II]. Above all -- IT'S ABOUT GETTING THINGS CLEAR. A word to the wise: if we're not already steeped in any one particular "school" of touch by our teachers there's no real need to take sides in this rope pull between diametrically opposed schools when each piece we play, whether early or modern, must be approached stylistically -- neither is there any real need to be in denial of the fact that some of the finest stylistic recordings of a major Bach work on a period instrument have employed a mixture of every kind of touch there is [See menu bar, Videos, Bach Toccata & Fugue, for just one example of this]. There is so much to be learned in organ playing that those who make it a serious study have better things to do with their time than to get hung up on any particular aspect of it. When it comes to settling on a type of touch, if we must insist on taking sides with one school that reigns supreme -- it should be THE SCHOOL OF CLARITY ... "Toujours claire!" as Alexandre Guilmant used to tell his pupils.